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.NET Memory Allocation Profiling with Visual Studio 2012

| Saturday, April 6, 2013
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Visual Studio 2012 has a wealth of valuable functionality, so much so that I periodically hear developers that already use Visual Studio asking for a feature the IDE already has and that they’ve just never discovered. Other times, I hear developers asking about a specific feature, thinking it’s meant for one purpose, not realizing it’s really intended for another.

Both of these cases apply to Visual Studio’s .NET memory allocation profiler. Many developers that could benefit from it don’t know it exists, and other developers have an incorrect expectation for its purpose. This is unfortunate, as the feature can provide a lot of value for particular scenarios; many developers will benefit from understanding first that it exists, and second the intended scenarios for its use.

Why memory profiling?

When it comes to .NET and memory analysis, there are two primary reasons one would want to use a diagnostics tool:

To discover memory leaks. Leaks on a garbage-collecting runtime like the CLR manifest differently than do leaks in a non-garbage-collected environment, such as in code written in C/C++. A leak in the latter typically occurs due to the developer not manually freeing some memory that was previously allocated. In a garbage collected environment, however, manually freeing memory isn’t required, as that’s the duty of the garbage collector (GC). However, the GC can only release memory that is provably no longer being used, meaning as long as there are no rooted references to the memory. Leaks in .NET code manifest then when some memory that should have been collected is incorrectly still rooted, e.g. a reference to the object occurs in an event handler registered with a static event. A good memory analysis tool might help you to find such leaks, such as by allowing you to take snapshots of the process at two different points and then comparing those snapshots to see which objects stuck around for the second point, and more importantly, why.

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